Editor’s note: The year 2026 marks the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Today, Cardinal News embarks on a three-year project to tell the little-known stories of Virginia’s role in the march to independence. This project is supported, in part, by a grant from the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission. You can sign up to receive a free monthly newsletter with updates. Find all our stories from this project on the Cardinal 250 page.
On Oct. 7, 1763, King George III drew a line across the Appalachian mountaintops and said, “Thou shalt not pass.”
His Majesty banned settlement and land grants west of the line, reserving the trans-Appalachian country for Native Americans. The goal was to prevent another costly conflict such as the just-concluded French and Indian War, and to keep a leash on independent-minded colonials.
Meeting in offices in London, bewigged British officials had some crude maps. But they did not have a crystal ball. And they did not foresee the unintended result of the Proclamation Line of 1763.
The aristocrats of Virginia’s Tidewater and Piedmont — including Thomas Jefferson — weren’t just idealists fighting for liberty. They were land speculators, and walling off the West thwarted their ambitions.
Virginia officer veterans of the recent war lost out on trans-Appalachian land grants.
Pioneers already beyond the line had mixed feelings, but many weren’t happy with the Proclamation, for it deprived them of title to the land they claimed.
The Proclamation Line of 1763, which lay physically across the break between the Atlantic and the Mississippi drainage basins, helped push the colonists toward another kind of break — the rupture with Britain that led to the birth of the United States.
The French and Indian War, 1754-1763, pitted the British, their colonists and Indian allies against the French and their colonists and allies. It became part of the worldwide conflict between European powers known as the Seven Years’ War. At stake was the vast territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, claimed by both European powers, with Native Americans in the middle trying to preserve their autonomy.
At the Paris negotiations ending the Seven Years’ War, imperial diplomats, players in a global board game, dealt Canada and the present-day United States east of the Mississippi to the British.
Along the Eastern Seaboard, increasing numbers of land-hungry colonists started loading wagons for the west.
In many ways, 18th century American history is all about the land acquisition, said Colin Calloway, professor of history and Native American and Indigenous Studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “So people like Washington and all people we’re familiar with are heavily into that. But it’s also the motivator for lots and lots of colonists who are looking for economic independence, and the land is the way to get that.”
Manassas resident Charlie Grymes created the Virginia Places website in 1998 for a class he taught at George Mason University. It now contains over 1,000 pages of history, maps and photos, “an interdisciplinary journey through the history, economics, geology, biology, sociology, and other -ologies” of Virginia.
In the 1760s, Western Virginia was a borderland, Grymes said. “If you were out there, planning to get free land, in one form or another, you literally were risking your life. It wasn’t a venture capitalist venturing capital — it was a venture human venturing their life.
“If you were living in what’s now the Duck Pond area of Virginia Tech, you knew the Shawnee were there. You knew you had to deal with the folks that might raid your settlement.
“I think the character of the people who settled in the West must have all been either risk takers, or children of risk takers who didn’t have a choice. The level of courage to live on the edge, or the level of desperation … is so different than our comfortable lives today, where the biggest issue is whether to watch Netflix or Amazon Prime.
“Everybody out there knew how to fire a gun. Everybody out there knew how to protect themselves. If you read the stories of these attacks on the settlements, you don’t see a distinction between the men and the women defending the cabins. They were all capable and willing to fire a firearm and wield a hatchet in order to protect your family,” Grymes said.
“They had a very, very different life than the gentry … that were living in Williamsburg and living in mansions in the Northern Neck.”
Those gentry “dominated colonial government in Virginia, and the colony’s economy was based on a ever-growing population continuously buying western lands,” Grymes writes in Virginia Places. “The colonial government located in Jamestown and then in Williamsburg (after 1699) granted those lands at low cost to a select group of powerful families. They profited by displacing Native Americans and selling parcels to new farmers. Growing tobacco was profitable, but the major fortunes of the First Families of Virginia (FFV’s) were made from land speculation.”
Many of the patriots whose names fill Virginia history textbooks — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason — were land speculators. Mason, for instance, bought up rights to 50,000 acres west of the Appalachians, according to “Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, ” by Woody Holton, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina (and the son of former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton).
Everybody has economic motives, which isn’t surprising, Holton said. “The more interesting part of it to me is that Native Americans were not just the speed bumps that the tank of westward expansion rolled right over.
“Native Americans were determined to defend their land. And colonists like Jefferson and Washington were determined to get it. And the Native Americans, to state it crudely, won that battle — the first round of it, anyway. That is, they persuaded the British government to draw a line … saying you can’t go west of this line.
“If I’m right — and other historians have said similar things — then Native Americans were really crucial to the story of the American Revolution,” Holton said. “That is, you can’t really understand why Jefferson and Washington rebelled against Britain, unless you know what Native Americans are up to.”
In the 1760s, Kentucky was the principal hunting ground for the Cherokees, the Mingos, the Shawnees and the Delawares, Holton wrote in “Forced Founders.”
In spite of the Proclamation Line, whites continued to pour into their lands. “Although the Proclamation of 1763 was aimed at both settlers and speculators, it was much more successful in denying legal title to speculators than in keeping farm families from simply moving west,” Holton wrote.
The Proclamation, issued under the name of King George, using the royal “we,” reads in part:
“And We do further declare it to be Our Royal Will and Pleasure … to reserve under our Sovereignty, Protection, and Dominion, for the use of the said Indians … all the Lands and Territories lying to the Westward of the Sources of the Rivers which fall into the Sea from the West and North West as aforesaid.
“And We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of our Displeasure, all our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever, or taking Possession of any of the Lands above reserved without our especial leave and Licence for that Purpose first obtained.
“And. We do further strictly enjoin and require all Persons whatever who have either wilfully or inadvertently seated themselves upon any Lands … still reserved to the said Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such Settlements.”
It’s not that the British cared especially about the Indians, Holton said. They just wanted to prevent another costly war. And they didn’t want to pay for peacekeeping, either.
The Stamp Act of 1765 was one example of “taxation without representation” that many Virginians remember from their fourth-grade history texts.
“The purpose of the Stamp Act was to finance the British government in leaving 10,000 soldiers in America after the French and Indian War,” Holton said. “They’d never done that before. They’d had a bunch of colonial wars, they sent troops over here, and then they win or they lose or whatever, and then they bring their troops home. But this time, they decided to leave troops behind to try to prevent another war. So I think it’s fair to call them peacekeeping troops, because they had all these forts, basically along the Appalachians, although some were far out as Detroit. And the soldiers in those forts were going to be a human border wall between the colonists and the Indians. … It’s much cheaper to avoid a war than to fight a war.”
As a later U.S. president pledged to put a wall between the United States and Mexico and make the Mexicans pay for it, Holton points out, so did the British try to put a border wall between the colonists and Indians and make the colonists pay for it.
Attempts to physically and psychologically separate the English from the Indians began with the rough log palisade around Jamestown. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the white tide pushed the turbulent frontier ever further west. “The western edge of Virginia was a constantly moving edge,” Grymes said.
In 1763 that edge lay along the Proclamation Line.
In addition to separating the colonists and Native Americans, the British had another purpose in drawing the line, said Alan Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of history at the University of Virginia who specializes in early American history. “They also thought that this is sending a message to the colonists — you belong to an empire, and you’ve got to follow the rules with the empire, and here’s a new rule. They are very concerned about exercising greater control over their colonists living east of the mountains.”
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The Eastern Continental Divide in Virginia begins at the North Carolina border. It runs through the southern part of Carroll County, then along the boundary between Carroll and Patrick counties, then along the Floyd-Patrick boundary. Near the southwest corner of Franklin County it detours into Floyd County, leaving a bit of Floyd in the Roanoke River basin. It returns to the Floyd-Franklin boundary, then through the northeastern part of Floyd, and through Montgomery County. It juts into Craig County around the valley of Sinking Creek, which flows to the New River. John’s Creek in northeastern Giles County is on the Atlantic side. The divide crosses into Monroe County, West Virginia, then into Giles, then back into Monroe, then north along the western boundaries of Alleghany, Bath and Highland counties. In some places the divide follows dramatic ridgelines, while in others it is a barely perceptible rise.
The town of Blacksburg in Montgomery County sits on the divide. At the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and South Main Street is a sign noting the Proclamation Line and Eastern Continental Divide. A blue stripe across Main Street marks the divide. Raindrops falling northwest of the painted stripe drain to the Mississippi; those falling to the southeast end up in the Atlantic Ocean.
Travelers on scenic Virginia 42 in Craig County cross the divide 8.2 miles west of New Castle. Sinking Creek flows southwest to join the New River, which becomes the Kanawha, which joins the Ohio, which joins the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Meadow Creek flows northeast to join Craigs Creek, which joins the James, which empties into Hampton Roads, Chesapeake Bay and then the Atlantic.
The Eastern Continental Divide is as durable as the rock that underlies it. Sculpted through geologic time by erosion and tectonic forces, it changes little in a human lifetime. The peace that the English attempted to build on it lasted not much longer than it takes for a raindrop to drain from Blacksburg to the Gulf of Mexico.
“This was a line I think that was conceived of as always potentially mobile,” Calloway said. “It could move west as time and circumstances demanded or allowed.”
In the decade following the Proclamation, some Indians deeded away trans-Appalachian tracts, notably in the 1768 treaties of Fort Stanwix (by the Iroquois) and Hard Labor (by the Cherokee). Other Native Americans fought the Europeans. Shawnee diplomats tried to build a pan-Indian coalition against further encroachment.
Within a few years of the king’s proclamation, the western boundary was already shifting, but still not fast enough for many colonists, especially in Virginia.
“Virginia has been in the lead of both land speculation and settlement west of the mountains,” Taylor said. “Virginians insist that their charter rights extend into … what is now Kentucky, but also all of the Midwest, to the north of the Ohio River. So Virginians have a very robust sense of their landed entitlement to this vast region. And they have a pretty formidable set of leaders. And they become alienated from the Crown because it seems like the Crown has a vision of controlling that vast territory to the benefit of the Crown rather than to the benefit of Virginia.”
In one of the grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, probably with the Proclamation Line in mind, charges King George with “raising the conditions,” that is, obstructing “new Appropriations of Lands.”
Among the colonial representatives gathered in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776, taxation without representation was the hottest complaint. “That’s an issue which is clearer, one in which the colonists believe that they have the moral high ground on, and it’s something that unites all of the colonies,” Taylor said. But for Virginians hungrily eyeing trans-Appalachian real estate, the land issue was “a pretty close second, if not co-equal.”
The Continental Congress adopted Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, thereby incurring the royal “Displeasure.” The die was cast.